Berkeley Law professor Molly Van Houweling on the fast track

It was May 15, 2009, and UC Berkeley Law professor Molly Shaffer Van Houweling was having a very bad day. Somewhere on a back road in Kern Country, CA, near Bakersfield, she was stuck with a mechanical problem.

Although her vehicle was not a car, it was worth almost as much. Van Houweling was struggling to get the chain engaged on her racing bicycle as she watched her competitors ride by in the time trial event of the Kern County Women’s Stage Race. She eventually finished 15th that day.

Not satisfied, she returned to the start and asked the timers to let her ride again — even though the effort would not be official. On her second attempt, she turned in the fastest time of the day, and she eventually finished third overall in the three-day race.

With a combination of fitness, skill and determination, Van Houweling, 37, has emerged as one of California’s best women bicycle racers. Her venues are quiet backroads that many motorists never experience, where she excels in the time trial, the solo rider’s race against the clock.

For the last two years, she has won the Northern California/Nevada district time trial championship, held annually in Sattley, CA. The course is at an altitude of 4,900 feet, along a dead-flat county road in an alpine valley north of Truckee.

This June, Van Houweling raced at Sattley only a week after her grueling, rain-soaked win at the multi-day Mt. Hood Classic in Portland, OR. “Maybe I was still recovering, but I didn’t have my best ride at Sattley this year,” she says.

In 2010, she eked out a winning performance but beat the next-fastest woman by just a few seconds. (In 2009, she had taken 55 minutes to complete the 40 kilometer course, beating her closest competitor by more than two minutes, at an average speed of 27 mph.)

A debatable biker

Growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Molly Shaffer gave no indication that she would be a gifted endurance athlete. “In high school,” she says, “I was a synchronized swimmer, which is a great sport — but it takes breath control and strength, not aerobic capacity. What eventually got me on a bike was, oddly enough, debate club.” While prepping for a competition as a high school sophomore, she met a fellow student, Robert Van Houweling. The two became high school sweethearts and have been together ever since.

The couple completed their undergraduate degrees at the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan, and both attended Harvard — Molly for a law degree, and Robert for a Ph.D. in political science. They returned to Ann Arbor to teach at U-M in 2002.

There, husband Robert rejoined Ann Arbor Velo, the local team he had raced with as a teenager, and encouraged Molly to ride with the club. “Unlike the Bay Area,” says Molly, “Ann Arbor is flat and hot during the summer, so cycling isn’t very interesting unless you do it with a bunch of other people.” Molly, who had dabbled with triathlons and had run the New York City marathon while a law student, discovered her talent for bike racing.

Robert was no slouch, either. He had been a Michigan junior state champion as a teenager. Together they won the 2004 Michigan State Tandem Time Trial Championships. By then, Molly was a visiting professor at Berkeley, and both Molly and Robert joined the faculty in 2005.

No time to procrastinate

Robert, an assistant professor in Political Science, has been sidelined recently by a few bad crashes, and has been serving as Molly’s driver and one-man crew at races. She has learned to do her academic work on the road. “With Rob at the wheel, I read as we drive to races,” she says. “And we both quickly set up shop and get to work in motel rooms. Being both a bike racer and an academic has taught me how to overcome my tendency to procrastinate.”

Molly Van Houweling during a teaching lecture

Molly Van Houweling teaching at the UC Berkeley School of Law (Jim Block photo)

It’s not clear when Van Houweling ever found the time to procrastinate. Before entering academia she clerked for Judge Michael Boudin of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit and Justice David H. Souter of the U.S. Supreme Court.

She next served as president of Creative Commons, a nonprofit group that facilitates sharing of art, music and other intellectual property by creating more flexible copyright agreements. She has also served as senior adviser to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the entity that oversees the internet domain name system.  Now her teaching and research interests include copyright, law and technology, and property theory.

She notes, “Historically, intellectual property law has tried to strike a balance between giving innovators a big enough reward to stoke their creativity, while not locking up their innovations so tightly that society can’t benefit from them.”

Laws governing patents, copyrights and other intellectual property have been shaped for the “macro-innovation” that occurs in large institutions like publishing companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers. Yet in the internet era, “micro-innovations” lead to important new products and companies. Van Houweling explains, “Everyone with a computer and an internet connection has what they need to be a published author. That makes us all both the targets and the beneficiaries of intellectual property laws that were not developed with this type of creativity and dissemination in mind.”

What sort of laws should shape new forms of innovation in the internet age? And what can be learned from legal history to help create new rules? Those are the issues that Van Houweling is attempting to resolve.

For Van Houweling, racing a bicycle and studying law are complementary activities. “Athletic training and legal research can be both enjoyable and frustrating on a daily basis. Some workouts, and some research sessions, are painful. And it is not always clear in the short term whether I am making any progress toward my goals. But when I win a race that I’ve been training for over an entire season, or publish an article that I’ve been thinking about for years, I can look back and see how the ultimate success was the result of lots of small efforts (and some wrong turns) over time. In both realms, it is important to remember the bigger picture, but also to enjoy the journey even if it sometimes leads nowhere.”

At age 37 Van Houweling has one more factor in her favor — experience. Some of her fellow racers are now 15 years her junior. She takes as her inspiration the amazing French racer Jeannie Longo, who recently won her 57th French National Title at age 51 (she has won many different events). Longo won her first French title 31 years ago, and has picked up several world records and Olympic medals along the way.

When asked if she will still be racing at age 51, Van Houweling ponders the question. “It’s hard to quit. Another thing that unites my job and my hobby is that there is always room for improvement. I always leave the classroom thinking about how I could make a concept clearer tomorrow. And every article raises unanswered questions to which I want to return. Every bike racing season ends with thoughts of how I can fix my weaknesses and improve for next season. Although I still have more races left in 2010, I’m already thinking those thoughts about 2011. But beyond that, I can’t say. I tend to daydream one racing season (and one class session, and one article) ahead.”